Jerusalem — The timing was just too perfect.
Less than a month after Donald Trump’s stunning victory in the U.S. presidential election — a victory in which his children, including his Jewish-by-conversion daughter Ivanka, played a major role — the Israeli Chief Rabbinate agreed to settle, once and for all, the bitter and long-running fight over conversions performed by American rabbis.
The coincidence didn’t go unnoticed.
“There is no question in my mind” that the timing of the Dec. 7 announcement by Israeli Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef and Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau “at least partly stems from the fact that one of the most prominent American converts is the daughter of the future president of the United States,” said Rabbi Seth Farber, founder of ITIM, an advocacy organization that has been trying for more than a decade to get the rabbinate to compile and release a comprehensive list of American rabbis whose conversion procedures it recognizes.
In fact, a source with ties to the Trump transition team told The Jewish Week that high-ranking transition officials were concerned over questions about the legitimacy of Ivanka Trump’s conversion and even raised the issue with Israel. “An approval by the Chief Rabbinate is seen as making for a closer personal relationship between the Trump family and Israel, and it is a step that is warmly welcomed,” the source quoted a transition team official as saying. The source added, however, that according to the transition team official, Israeli officials were never pressured to intercede with the Chief Rabbinate.
The Chief Rabbinate has grown increasingly rigid in recent years in its religious restrictions on matters of personal status that it controls, such as marriage, conversion and divorce. It has been criticized for its stringency within segments of the Modern Orthodox community — the only branch of Judaism that seeks to follow its rulings.
The chief rabbis’ statement noted the need for “serious reform” and said the rabbinate would prepare a list of criteria for conversions performed by diaspora rabbis, and that once approved, those rabbis’ future conversions will be accepted without question. The statement mentioned Ivanka Trump by name; Rabbi Farber said it was “unprecedented” for a chief rabbi to refer to a convert by name, especially since Trump has never sought out the rabbinate’s recognition of her Orthodox conversion.
Her conversion was performed in one of the special conversion rabbinical courts created by the Rabbinical Council of American/Beit Din of America at the insistence of the Israeli rabbinate.
A spokesman for the chief rabbis said they were “unaware of any outside influence in this process.” The rabbinate’s action, he said, “was completely internal and unrelated to anything happening in the media.”
Those who fight for converts’ rights seriously doubt this assertion, and suspect that media coverage — or perhaps some Israeli discussions with Trump’s team related to the validity of Ivanka Trump’s conversion — might have contributed to the timing. Trump was married in 2009 to Jared Kushner, now a close adviser to as well as son-in-law of the president-elect, in a ceremony performed by Rabbi Haskel Lookstein of Congregation Kehilath Jeshurun on the Upper East Side. The rabbi, a longtime leader of the Modern Orthodox community, also prepared Trump for conversion, though he did not actually perform it.
The Trump conversion was called into question this summer when a branch of the rabbinate rejected the validity of another conversion performed by Rabbi Lookstein, despite his stellar reputation.
Chuck Davidson, a social activist and advocate for conversion reform in Israel, said that although he had no specific knowledge of who has been pressuring the chief rabbis, he’s convinced “the rabbis are not oblivious” to Israeli public opinion and growing tensions between Israel and the diaspora over the conversion issue.
“They’re aware that there is no sector of Israeli society that holds them in regard,” Davidson said. “Is there political pressure? God knows.”
Davidson theorized that the RCA — what he called the rabbinate’s “single most important diaspora rabbinic partner” — may have pressed the rabbinate to come up with a clear list of criteria diaspora rabbis wishing to perform conversions should follow.
The rabbinate’s rejection of so many Orthodox conversions performed outside the specific conversion courts by RCA members has caused consternation and anger, Davidson said.
A number of RCA rabbis believe that all conversions performed by its members should be recognized as valid, whether or not they were done through its GPS — Geirus (conversion) Policies and Standards — procedures under the auspices of a few regional religious courts. “Some feel that by permitting only a few rabbis to perform conversions, it’s taking away the rabbinical autonomy of the local community rabbi,” Davidson said.
Rabbi Mark Dratch, the RCA’s executive vice-president, said his organization is in frequent contact with the rabbinate, but that the RCA does not impose pressure on its Israeli counterpart.
However, Dratch said the RCA is “encouraged that the rabbinate has planned to move away from the ad hoc system that has made converts vulnerable. At the same time, we are concerned as to how the list will be developed. It’s not clear with whom they will be consulting or what standards will be applied.”
One rabbi, who spoke on condition of anonymity, expressed concern that the Chief Rabbinate might accept only U.S. conversions performed via the GPS system and reject those conversions performed outside this system, even if they are performed by the very same rabbis.
Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, an Israeli Modern Orthodox rabbi and a founder of Tzohar, an organization of religious Zionist rabbis, said he “imagines” that the rabbinate has been feeling pressured “from all around – by politicians, by religious congregations all over the States, possibly by the prime minister. There is a lot of tension between the diaspora and Israel around the conversion issue and [egalitarian and women’s prayer at] the Western Wall,” Rabbi Cherlow said.
He hopes the Chief Rabbinate’s rabbi list is inclusive and transparent. But “if the rabbinate doesn’t include rabbis who live in Riverdale, such as the graduates of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah [the Open Orthodox rabbinical school founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss], then the rabbinate will not function as a chief rabbinate.
“Let’s be optimistic for a few months and support the notion. After I see the list, I can respond,” Rabbi Cherlow said.
Rabbi Farber said he is also hoping for the best, but that if the rabbinate fails to provide a comprehensive list as well as the criteria by which it was created, ITIM will petition the High Court of Justice.
“It’s noteworthy that the rabbinate made its announcement exactly a year to the day after it promised a Jerusalem court would provide such a list. They provided a partial list in April but said it wasn’t complete,” said Rabbi Farber, whose organization filed suit against the rabbinate in a Jerusalem civil court.
If the rabbinate continues to drag its feet, Rabbi Farber said, “they know a lawsuit is looming.”